Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Last Long-Term Home - The Mouse House

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This would be #0 on the list in my previous post. It was a one bedroom apartment I shared with two other people. We used a living room and another room (probably a dining room) as the other two bedrooms, so that our only common rooms were the hallways, the bathroom, a very small kitchen, and the extra room. The extra room was a tiny room with a window and a light switch, but no electrical outlets. During my time at the apartment, the extra room was a sitting room, then a storage closet (sometimes stuffed to the brim, and we'd put a bookshelf in front of the door so that guests wouldn't accidentally try to go into that embarrassing room), and at the end, a guest room with a mattress on the floor and a surge protector connected to an extension cord that went through the window, passed from the neighboring bedroom. Despite the apartment's small size and faulty upkeep, it was an attractive home. People who came over complimented us, saying, "This is a nice place!" It was attractive, and I have no doubt it was due to the decorating skills and wise usage of tiny space of us three housemates.

I loved living there. It was conveniently located no more than a fifteen minute walk to my classes and a five minute walk to work (until I got a second job thirty-five miles away.) My housemates and I became friends. We shared things in the house without taking advantage of anyone's generosity. We were all fairly clean, only messy when we were particularly busy. Usually, someone who wasn't busy would pick up the slack, because we all knew that when we didn't have time, another roommate would in turn help us out. When any of us were sick, we would take care of each other. I can recall my roommates bringing me tea in bed. We'd buy each other medicine. We'd make soup. At the beginning of cold season, we'd buy cloves of garlic and on nights when at least two of us were home, we'd roast the garlic in the toaster oven and share the whole head with pieces of bread. Once, we had a guest witness this; I'm not sure if he or she was awed, moved, or disgusted. We also drank lots of tea, all year long, often together.

I had a routine that I liked. I had class and work for about twelve hours, Monday through Wednesday, and on Thursday and Friday I sometimes worked one or two periods, but mostly I used the long weekend to study or catch up on things. (Now I'd use those weekends to go camping or something.) The second half of my time there, I worked at what would become my full-time job on Thursdays and Fridays, but since I was done with classes for the week, my weekend still, in a sense, began on Wednesday.

What I remember most about that routine was Wednesday Night Dinners. It was way to pick us up in the middle of the week. Two friends were regular attendees, with one of my roommates making frequent appearances, and my other roommate joining us at the end of the night. Other friends would make occasional guest appearances. It worked out that we were all women who were either working as scientists or studying science in school. (I think we were all biologists, too, now that I think of it.) (Except the roommate who'd join us at the end of the night. He was neither a woman nor a scientist.) Wednesday Night Dinner was social, relaxing, delicious, and wonderful. It was a way to test out recipes we'd been meaning to try and to use up stuff we'd made too much of. There were three courses - aperitif, dinner, and dessert. Someone (usually it would be me) would send out an e-mail on Sunday or Monday to everyone invited, asking who would host and who would bring what for which course. The idea was that, since there were three of us, we'd each supply one of the three courses. (If there were more people coming, then we'd have soup and salad as a course, too.) Since we liked to cook - I can't speak for the other guests, but for me, cooking and trying new recipes was (and still is) a way to relieve stress - Wednesday Night Dinner evolved into all three of us bringing a contribution for each of the three courses. We ate too much and stayed too late, usually not leaving the hostess's home until midnight.

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A Wednesday Night Dinner favorite - fig and goat cheese tart.

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Homemade pizza at a Wednesday Night Dinner. The blue goblet is usually where I'd have my kir (made with creme de cassis from my grandmere) and whatever the evening's wine was. There's also a good chance that the adorable teacup in the upper right corner was being used to house wine.

There were plenty of things wrong with that home, however. It was tiny, as I've mentioned. It was old, I think built in 1920. Its quirks, especially the bad ones, appeared over time. First of all, the faucets were backwards. The kitchen sink ran hot when the faucet was turned to cold, and vice versa. The shower was the same way, and this meant that we only got good water pressure for cold showers, not for hot. Since I took cold showers in the summertime (and both summers I lived there, without air conditioning, were unseasonably hot), I didn't mind. The bathroom sink, for whatever reason, was normal.

When I moved in, our back porch, a fire escape made out of very old wood that looked like it would be the first thing to burst into flames, was completely covered with stuff. The housemate who'd lived there the longest told me that it was there when he moved in and probably his roommate before. It looked like someone had left all their junk out there before moving out and never came to claim it. The cabinets, too, were full of all kinds of junk that a former tenant or the landlord had left behind. I remember lots of paint cans, some empty and some not, and some cans of insecticide. There was broken glass. There were plates and other dishes that we either turned into planters or washed off, disinfecting with hot vinegar, and used. (I can think of at least one of my readers who was given cookies on a gentian plate. Those came from the back porch. They were too pretty to throw away. Don't worry, we really cleaned them.) I remember there was also a pair of men's shorts mixed in with all the junk. I made it my project to clear off that porch, put folding chairs on it, and turn it into a "beer-drinking porch."

A lot of the junk ended up in the shed, which was a barn-like structure in our backyard. When one of our downstairs neighbors tried to clean it out, he found women's clothing including bras and underwear, a food smoker, several grills, and a freshmen seminar textbook from the 1980's.

Our utilities only came to about $8/month, sometimes as much as $30, for each of us. I have no idea how that was possible. We didn't have cable because none of us wanted it. We shared Internet with the people downstairs; all six of us paid about $5/month. I never paid for at least half of the year, because the person who was supposed to collect the money didn't do so aggressively, and also because there was (and still is) a huge paint mark on the back of my car that happens to match the paint on his car.

Which brings me to another quirk - the driveway. It was kind of funnel-shaped. The entrance was wide enough for one car, and the back was wide enough for three cars. Our leases said something about only three cars in the driveway at all times, but the landlord said he didn't care what the six of us worked out. Five of us had cars, so two of us would park at an angle on the wide part of the funnel. It's probably hard to picture, but really not that interesting, so I'll move on. I'll just say that it was sometimes hard to back out of the corner spot, and that's why we all had each other's paint on our cars; at some point or another, I think all of us grazed someone's car.

Another reason our bills were so low was probably because we waited as long as humanly possible to turn the heat on in the winter. We would huddle together in the kitchen, drinking tea, while wearing two shirts, our coats, hats, and gloves in the house, before we'd turn the heat on. We baked a lot. We timed our baking so that it was a convenient time for the oven to warm up the house and kick the heat off; no heat would be lost that way.

But the day came when no more baking would happen in the house.

The biggest problem that the apartment developed was mice. The mouse infestation of that apartment could turn into several stories. To be brief, no measures we took would stop the mice. First, we removed all unsealed food items from short furniture. No more fruit basket on the table. No more bread on the counter. Then, the mice learned how to climb up the refrigerator. No more bread or fruit basket on top of the refrigerator; no more food basket, period. We had one built-in cabinet with glass doors which we believed was safe from the mice. At 2AM one December morning, while I was a little loopy from working on a final paper, I heard a noise. I saw a mouse walking on the shelf under the cabinet, and I tried to chase it into a trash can so I could set it free outside. The mouse disappeared. I saw movement behind the glass door. No! I thought. I opened the cabinet and the mouse disappeared behind a bag of flour, reappeared on the shelf under the cabinet, and dashed onto the floor, running out of sight.

The mice had climbed up on our boxes of tea (which, if they weren't made of metal, had been chewed and had to be thrown out) and gnawed a hole in the bottom of the cabinet. They had chewed completely through and were able to eat anything we had on the bottom shelf, things in paper and plastic bags we hadn't bothered to secure. Since it was bulk items we didn't frequently use, we had no reason to take notice. I might have actually cried when I saw this.

I threw out everything that seemed unsafe on that shelf, disinfected it, and covered the hole with metal tea tins. I moved all of our glass jars or metal containers onto that bottom shelf, storing anything that wasn't mouse-proof on the higher shelves.

The mice continued to live on food crumbs that missed being swept up. The mice found a way to get through the back the oven and make a home in it. We had been storing baked goods in the oven. We stopped. We cleaned the oven whenever we wanted to use it, but usually we were too grossed out by the thought of mice pooping in the oven to put food in it. We scaled our baking down to what would fit in the toaster oven - small cakes, small bread, and small batches of cookies.

In the second half of our time in the apartment, one roommate noticed that his sweatshirts, which were kept on stackable cubes and not in a sealed dresser, had strange holes in it. Shortly after, I turned the dial on our gas stove to light it and make dinner. I saw sparks, and then the flame went out. After shutting off the gas, I carefully lifted the stovetop to see what was wrong.

Under one of the burners in the stove was fluff. A nest of sweatshirt fluff and mattress stuffing (which we later learned came from my other roommate's mattress) built by mice under the burner on the gas stove.

No longer able to eat our food, they had moved on to our clothing and bedding. The next step was for them to eat us.

Fortunately, it never came to that. We did worry about hantavirus (perhaps unnecessarily) and any other disease mice might carry. We disinfected the counters several times a day, but still refrained from putting food directly on the counters. There was plenty of evidence that mice were climbing onto them.

The landlord's reaction is so frustrating, I don't even want to write about it right now.

In the last third or so of our time in the apartment, the fridge started to leak. Water pooled in the crisper drawers. Sometimes it even got onto the shelves. By summertime, we couldn't keep fresh greens in the refrigerator. They would just wilt. Any salad I wanted to eat had to be kept at work.

In July, a plumber started visiting us. The downstairs neighbors called our landlord because every time one of us took a shower, water leaked into their apartment, flooding the bathroom. The plumber, who I think was the same man that came to our house with the title of "exterminator," came many times but to my knowledge, never fixed the problem. Around the same time, the tiles started to come off the kitchen floor. Water leaking from the refrigerator was collecting on the kitchen floor, destroying the tiles and the wood.

During my last month at the apartment, I tried to cook dinner on the stove one night. When I turned the dial to lower the flame, nothing happened. When I tried to shut off the gas, nothing happened. Something in the stove had gotten stuck so that the highest flame was burning and would not stop. When I called the landlord, he sent a repairman. The plumber/exterminator arrived.

Our home was clearly no longer a home. Additionally, my beloved roommates and I were going separate ways in life. One moved in with a significant other. One moved to New York for work. I moved closer to my job, too. I knew that I couldn't live forty-five minutes from my office in a mouse-infested place with a stove that might burn the house down, a fire escape that was made of kindling, and a floor that was rotting so that one day, the leaky refrigerator in which no salads could be stored might fall through the floor and crush the downstairs neighbors. It didn't make me any less sad to leave.

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Sometimes, we had a lot of produce for the entrepreneurial mouse.

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It was here that I learned to make real mayonnaise - which is where the spoon stands up in the middle of the bowl unsupported by anything but the strength of the mayonnaise.

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This was actually a Sunday afternoon, but this spread would not have been out of place at a Wednesday Night Dinner. The centerpiece was made with weeds wildflowers collected in our yard.

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